COVER

NOT A SURE THING

The Liberals are strong but not invincible

May 5 1997
COVER

NOT A SURE THING

The Liberals are strong but not invincible

May 5 1997

NOT A SURE THING

COVER

BUREAU REPORT: The Atlantic

The Liberals are strong but not invincible

In the election campaign at hand, it is voters like Bill Macdonald who will keep politicians awake at night. Macdonald, who has worked as a barber in the northern Nova Scotia community of New Glasgow for the past 32 years, says that, at various times, he has voted for the Liberal, Conservative and New Democratic parties. This time around, he insists he won’t know who he will vote for—or if he will vote at all—until election day. Macdonald is dismayed that his standard of living has been going down for at least the past decade due to higher taxes and a stagnant economy. He is also profoundly disenchanted with politicians. “I find it hard to believe any of them,” he says during a lengthy lull between customers at his downtown shop.

“We’ve been lied to too much.” Macdonald’s daughter, Denise, who is apprenticing under him, shares his jaded view. “They’re all the same,” she says as she swivels in a vacant barber’s chair. “They say what they are going to do and then they don’t do any of it.” While the wrath of voters like the Macdonalds is aimed at all parties, it is government members who are in the first line of fire. This is particularly true in Atlantic Canada, where the Liberals won 31 of 32 seats in the 1993 federal election and so, presumably, have nowhere to go but down. Other factors, too, are adding to the volatility of the race. The Conservatives—who saw their popular vote collapse everywhere except Atlantic Canada in 1993—show signs of building on that base. And under the leadership of Halifax’s Alexa McDonough, the federal NDP promises to be a real player in parts of the region for the first time. Even the Reform party—still viewed by many Atlantic Canadians as a curiosity from the Far West—is demonstrat-

ing surprising strength in a few rural ridings where its populist stands on gun control, crime and tax cuts strike a responsive chord.

For all that, few political observers believe—at this point, at least—that the Liberals are in serious trouble. In an Angus Reid Group/Southam News poll conducted last week, the Liberals still enjoyed the support of 42 per cent of decided voters in Atlantic Canada, compared with 25 per cent for the Conservatives, 23 per cent for the NDP and nine per cent for Reform. The big surprise in those numbers, says Angus Reid vice-president Bob Richardson, is the NDP showing—the party won only five per cent of the regional popular vote in 1993. ‘We’ll probably see a much higher NDP vote than usual,” he says. “The question is: whose hide does that come out of?" Apart from McDonough, who may well win a seat in the hotly contested riding of Halifax, Richardson suspects that the NDP will mostly play a spoiler role, especially in Nova Scotia, bleeding off enough Liberal votes to help some Tory candidates squeak to victory.

In fact, of the four Atlantic provinces, Nova Scotia is the one where the Liberals could be in for the roughest ride. Conservative roots are deep in the province, and party strategists are focusing on winning back a half-dozen traditional Tory seats. They are also counting on voters venting their anger at Premier John Savage’s deficit-fighting Liberal government by defeating federal party candidates vying for Nova Scotia’s 11 seats.

One of the most intriguing races is in the sprawling new riding of Pictou/Antigonish/Guysborough in northeastern Nova Scotia. The constituency incorporates parts of two old ridings both held by Liberals: Francis LeBlanc in Cape-Breton Highlands/Canso and Roseanne Skoke in Central Nova. After LeBlanc defeated Skoke—who alienated many traditional Liberals with her controversial opposition to gay rights—at a bitterly contested nomination for the new riding on March 22, the feisty MP hinted that she might run as an Independent candidate. At week’s end, Skoke had not made her intentions known. But even if Skoke is persuaded to sit it out the Tories will be quietly wooing her former supporters, arguing that a vote for their candidate, Peter MacKay—whose father, Elmer, represented Central Nova for 20 years—is the best revenge for LeBlanc’s nomination victory.

Similar intrigues are afoot in New Brunswick, where the Liberals control nine of the province’s 10 seats and are expected to retain the lion’s share.

Take the case of Tobique/Mactaquac, another sprawling new riding that follows the folds of the Saint John River for more than 200 km, from Grand Falls in the north to the outskirts of Fredericton in the south. The riding cuts across all the fault lines of New Brunswick politics—rural versus urban, north versus south, English versus French. The northern tip of Tobique/Mactaquac extends into heavily French-speaking Madawaska County, giving the riding a 30-per-cent francophone minority. The gentle rolling farm country south of Grand Falls is predominantly Englishspeaking—and an area where the anti-bilingualism Confederation of Regions Party once found favor.

Both the Liberals and the Conservatives have nominated francophone candidates from the northern part of the riding—a move that many say gives the Reform party a real shot at electing its first Maritime MP. Reform, which will be represented by one of two anglophone candidates chosen at a May 3 nomination meeting, is being careful not to publicly play the language card. But the linguistic tensions it hopes to capitalize on are never very far from the surface. “People aren’t saying much, but they are quietly getting pretty disgusted,” says New Denmark, N.B., potato farmer Kevin Jensen, of the choice between the Liberal and the Tory candidates. “They just don’t

see any difference between the two old-line parties anymore.” The Liberals remain a potent force in all seven Newfoundland ridings, which they currently hold. But the Tories are expected to make a race of it in at least two instances—St. John’s West and St. John’s East—where high-profile former provincial cabinet ministers Charlie Power and Norm Doyle are the standard-bearers. And according to Steve Tomblin, a political scientist at Memorial University in St. John’s, the Liberals could have some other rude surprises in store for them. “There are a lot of frustrated voters,” he says. “They’re not

excited by any of the parties.” There are also rumblings of discontent in Prince Edward Island, where Tories are still savoring the trouncing they delivered to the province’s former liberal government last November. The Tories are expected to make a strong showing in at least two of the province’s four federal seats, including the eastern riding of Cardigan. Liberal incumbent Lawrence MacAulay—a nineyear veteran of the House of Commons, whose bluff charm goes over well at Island ice-cream socials—faces a stiff challenge from Tory candidate Dan Hughes. MacAulay’s Achilles heel is that he, like every other Atlantic liberal MP, voted in favor of a bill that cut annual employment insurance benefits by $1.7 billion last year. “Lawrence is in trouble, that’s for sure,” says Jacinta Deveaux, a seasonal fish-plant worker who helped lead a series of raucous protests against the employment insurance bill. ‘To survive with El now you’ve got to have two jobs, and you’re damned lucky if you can find one job up here.” In a region where unemployment levels remain chronically high, the El cuts and what many see as unfulfilled Liberal promises to ere ate jobs are top-of-mind election issues. Other key concerns include high taxes, the languishing fisheries and growing fears about the future of Canada’s health care and education systems. But the overarching issue—at least in the view of the opposition parties—is regional clout. The NDP’s McDonough declares that “no part of Canada has been so harshly treated and heavily hammered by the Liberals’ betrayal of their commitments.” Not to be outdone, Conservative Leader Jean Charest dismisses the Liberals’ 31-member Atlantic caucus as “a choir that does not sing, that has political laryngitis.”

As the head of that choir, Bonnie Hickey begs to differ. The St. John’s East MP, who serves as chairwoman of the Atlantic caucus, points out that pressure from the region’s MPs helped soften the El bill’s effect on seasonal and part-time workers. She also believes that Liberals can run proudly on their record of tackling the deficit and paving the way for the day when transfer payments to needy provinces are once again on the rise. “I think we’ve hit the bottom fiscally,” she says, “and now we’re going to come up.”

Perhaps. But in the days leading up to the election call, the region’s Liberals showed that they were not shy about improving their chances with some fast cash. Last week alone, MP Paul Zed returned home to the Bay of Fundy area to dispense $5 million towards tourism and infrastructure projects, Halifax’s Mary Clancy, in a tight race with McDonough, handed over another $4.4 million in job-training grants, and Defence Minister Doug Young—long considered a fiscal hawk—appeared in his northern New Brunswick riding of Acadie/Bathurst to announce a $2.5-million expansion of an Acadian tourist attraction. Whether voters are suitably grateful—or simply appalled by what appeared to many as blatant pork-barreling—may help determine if the Liberal hegemony in the East is to continue, or crumble.

BRIAN BERGMAN in New Glasgow with DON RICHARDSON in Fredericton and DOUG BEAZLEY in Charlottetown

RIDINGS TO WATCH

St. John’s West: Former Newfoundland Liberal energy minister Rex Gibbons and veteran Tory Charlie Power duke it out in the riding held by John Crosbie for 17 years.

Cumberland/Colchester: Tory Bill Casey is favored to regain the Nova Scotia seat he lost in the 1993 Liberal sweep.

Halifax: NDP Leader Alexa McDonough is considered the early front-runner in a race that also features Liberal incumbent Mary Clancy and popular Tory MLA Terry Donahoe. Pictou/Antigonish/Guysborough: Liberal Francis LeBlanc slayed party dragon Roseanne Skoke during the nomination fight. Now, he must battle Nova Scotia’s MacKay clan as Peter, 31, tries to follow in the footsteps of his father, former Tory cabinet minister Elmer MacKay.

Tobique/Mactaquac: Reform has a shot at gaining a foothold in New Brunswick after the Liberals and Tories put up francophone candidates in this predominantly English-speaking riding.